Monday, July 11, 2011

To Kill a Tsar by Andrew Williams

(Book Review)

I’m a big fan of historical novels. But there’s no denying the success rate of the genre is low. Many historians don’t make good novelists, and many novelists don’t make good historians.

This book gets full marks for the history, but the fiction parts of it are weak.

The historical events around which this book is based are absolutely fascinating. In 19th Century Russia, radicals, frustrated with the slow pace of reform, embarked on a campaign of terrorism against the government. Foremost among these groups was “The People’s Will.”

It was the contention of The People’s Will that by 1879 peaceful protest had demonstrably failed and that change was only possible through direct terrorist action. The party was socialist, but democratic in character, committed to an elected assembly, freedom of speech and religious worship,” (from the Author’s afterward, p. 430).

Several government officials were gunned down in the street, but their primary target was Tsar Alexander II.

The elaborate schemes that The People’s Will concocted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II are fascinating. The sheer luck by which Tsar Alexander II survived most of them is equally fascinating (he appears to have had more lives than a cat.)

The People’s Will send a gunman to shoot Alexander II. The gunman misses.
The People’s Will tunnel under the railway, and set off a bomb just at the precise moment that Tsar Alexander II’s train car is passing over. The Tsar survives because he switched train cars at the last minute.
The People’s Will plant a bomb in the Tsar’s Winter Palace, and blow up half the palace during dinner time. Alexander II survives because he was late to dinner.

Eventually they do succeed in assassinating Alexander II by ambushing his carriage procession, first throwing grenades to stop his carriage, and then hurling a bomb at his feet once he steps out of his carriage.

(Given the title of the book, I trust I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this.)

Throughout the 2 years that The People’s Will were active, they were constantly in a game of cat and mouse with the Russian police. For most of this period they were able to stay one step ahead of the police because they had a well placed double agent among the police, who would feed them vital information about the police investigations.

All of this proves the old saying that the truth is always stranger than fiction. (A co-worker of mine once said, “The thing I love about history is that it’s always so much more interesting than fiction. The things that happen in history—you couldn’t make that stuff up if you tried.”)

Andrew Williams has certainly chosen an interesting subject matter to explore. I’m not sure his novel entirely takes advantage of the story’s dramatic possibilities, but I give him credit for choosing his subject material well.

As for the literary aspects of this book:

On the plus side, one of the better decisions Williams makes is to dramatize both sides of the story. We see the activities of The People’s Will, but almost equal time is given to the police investigation. Through the dramatization of real historical police figures like Count von Plehve and criminal investigator Dobrshinsky, the reader gets to see the investigation methods as well as their interrogation procedures of 19th century political police. (Interestingly enough, even though Tsarist Russia was a totalitarian state, the criminal investigator didn’t use torture to extract information, but instead first won the trust of the prisoners, and then afterward was able to extract information from them.) From the police side, we also see their frustrations in trying to track down the mole. They know somehow information from the police office is getting out to the People’s Will, but they don’t know who is doing it.

Now onto the negatives:
When writing historical fiction, I think it’s a good rule of thumb for the author to assume that the actual historical figures are always much more interesting than any fictional characters he can create. Williams, unfortunately, does not follow this rule. The bulk of the book is therefore consumed by the story of a fictional romance between the fictional young English doctor Frederick Hadfield and the fictional revolutionary Anna Kovalenko. I didn’t find either of them particularly interesting as characters, and I didn’t care about their romance at all.

It’s a pity because the focus on the fictional Hadfield and Anna pushes all the much more interesting real historical figures and events into the background. And it’s particularly a pity because neither of them are necessary to the narrative.
(With some historical fiction, the historical events that the author is trying to dramatize are disparate enough that composite fictional characters are needed to tie everything together into one story. But The People’s Will appears to have been such a small tightly knit group that their story could easily have been told without inventing extra characters.)

Anna Kovalenko in particular I found to be an annoying heroine, because she is one of those cliché fictional heroines who is always described as being fierce, determined, outspoken and angry, but with a hidden soft romantic side.

Often in his effort to emphasize Anna’s fierce and angry personality, Williams’ prose will become repetitive.
For example, on page 125, Anna encounters 3 suspicious looking men who are barring her way down the street.

“My friend likes you, love,” the first man said. His hand was still open in front of her.
“Then he won’t mind stepping out of my way, will he?” [said Anna.] This time there was steel in her voice. She was angry. Who were these men to accost a woman at night?


Ideally, I think Williams should have let the situation and the dialogue stand by itself, without having to constantly remind the reader how fierce and angry Anna can be. But unfortunately this is all too typical of his writing style. And it gets even worse a little further down the same page…

“Murderers!” And she kicked out blindly at the first man rising to his feet. Angry, she was so angry, grinding her teeth with anger.

[Sigh. Really, where were the editors? Did anyone proof read this book before publication?]

And this kind of one-note characterization is unfortunately true of how many of the characters in this book are written. We get very little life like or 3 dimensional characters in this book. Instead the revolutionaries are mostly card board cut outs who constantly talk in clichés, and who will suddenly launch into political speeches at dinner parties with no preamble.

Granted, it is difficult to fully bring these sort of people to life in fiction. These people really were political zealots in real life, and I think it is all too easy to just write them off as one note characters in fiction. This is perhaps why revolutionary movements make very interesting history, but they seldom make good fiction. Very few authors can actually pull it off: Victor Hugo was perhaps one of the few who could do it well. And Leo Tolstoy (although not writing about a revolutionary period per se, I think Tolstoy did a very good job of showing how a character’s political obsessions are also intertwined with their other emotional needs.)

Final verdict: If you’re a fellow history nerd, I think there’s enough interesting history in this book for me to give it a cautious recommendation in spite of its literary flaws. If you’re not a history buff, don’t bother.

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A search on Amazon reveals that there is another book with the same title on the same topic published the same year, and that also appears to be a historical novel: "To Kill a Tsar" by G.K. George (A).
This raises the following questions:
1). What gives? Did someone in the publishing industry decide that this was the year when everyone would suddenly become interested in reading historical novels about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II?
2). Don’t the publishers usually watch out to make sure this kind of title confusion doesn’t happen?
3). How do the two books compare to each other? At the moment I can’t say, but I might someday be interested in tracking down and reading this other version.

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For more on “The People’s Will” don’t forget about this BBC radio program. [Tsar Alexander II's assassination: LINK HERE]

Link of the Day
"The West Is Terrified of Arabic Democracies"

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